'We're in uncharted territory': Iowa districts, state wrestle over power to set school reopening plans

Brianne Pfannenstiel
Des Moines Register

Some of Iowa's largest school districts are deciding whether to comply with new state guidance around in-person learning, setting off what could become a game of "chicken" with the governor and the Department of Education just as the new school year is set to begin.

At issue is a state law passed earlier this year that some districts argue has been interpreted to give too much power to the governor. They say it conflicts with existing state code granting more flexibility to local school districts — a statute known as "home rule," which was enacted in 2017.

Both pieces of state law are relatively new and untested.

Some districts, such as Urbandale, have already announced plans to move forward with their own interpretations of the law, effectively daring the governor to take action against them.

The result could be a legal challenge at a high-stakes moment when parents, educators and state officials all are grappling with the best way to return students to schools safely amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"We're in uncharted territory," said Margaret Buckton, a legislative analyst for the Urban Education Network. 

Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo speaks at a news conference on Aug. 6, 2020, in Johnston. Over 500,000 people, which equals 1 in 6 Iowans, have been tested for the coronavirus, Gov. Kim Reynolds said at the same press conference.

State law versus local control

The Iowa Legislature passed Senate File 2310 in June, which says schools "shall not take action to provide instruction primarily through remote-learning opportunities."

The state has defined "primarily" to mean that schools must hold at least 50% of their classes in person to be in compliance.

Districts can request a waiver to that rule if the county in which they operate has a positive coronavirus test rate of at least 15% during the previous two weeks and at least 10% absenteeism among students. Those metrics are not included in the law, and Gov. Kim Reynolds has not explained how they were determined.

The 15% threshold is higher than those specified by several officials and epidemiologists, whose recommendations often range from 3% to 10%. 

"It's clear the Legislature wants some kind of in-person instruction except in certain circumstances for when there are issues with an outbreak or something along those lines," said Brenna Bird, who served as general counsel to former Republican Gov. Terry Branstad and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Iowa Law School. "They expect in-person instruction."

But Buckton, with the Urban Education Network, points to the "home rule" law the Legislature passed in 2017. 

Before 2017, Iowa school districts operated under a system known as "Dillon's Rule," which allowed school districts to do anything expressly permitted by the state. The new "home rule" law specified the inverse: Now, districts can do most anything that is not expressly prohibited by the state. Exceptions include levying taxes and interfering with law enforcement.

The goal was to give school districts more local control.

Some districts, including Waukee, have cited this section of Iowa Code in declaring they don't have to comply with the governor's proclamation. 

Currently, Waukee's plan for reopening schools will allow families to choose whether their children will attend classes entirely online or entirely in person, with no hybrid option. The district will require face coverings, except for those who may not be able to safely wear them.

The district is not currently out of step with the state's guidance. But according to a statement from the school board, it will not request permission from the Iowa Department of Education to move to a remote-learning model "should the need arise."

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds holds a news conference on reopening Iowa schools on Aug. 4, 2020, in Johnston.

"We believe in local control, and this circumstance is no different," the statement said. "We further believe decisions regarding the health and safety of our students, staff, and the general community are best made by those most closely associated with the decision-making."

The Iowa Association of School Boards said in a statement that the group believes school boards need that local control. 

"Local school board members and administrators know their own communities best and need the authority to quickly pivot to primarily remote learning if the need arises, without an approval process through state agencies," Communications Director Tammy Votava said in a statement. "The governor’s proclamation of July 17 and the guidance announced on July 30 appear to restrict this local decision making based on local conditions."

She said the group is continuing to work with the governor's office and the Department of Education. 

Repercussions unclear

The Urbandale Community School District became the first in Iowa to openly defy the state after the Department of Education denied a waiver request that would have allowed Rolling Green Elementary to continue holding online classes. A district spokesperson said the school would continue offering classes online until at least Aug. 20.

What happens next is unclear.

In an Aug. 4 news conference, Reynolds threatened that schools bucking the law and her subsequent guidance would not receive credit for days in which they are noncompliant. Additionally, she said school administrators who defy the state's rules could face licensure discipline. She did not say that districts would lose out on state funding.

More:Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds escalates stakes for defiant schools in showdown over mandate on in-person learning

Iowa's school districts and accredited nonpublic schools are required to include 1,080 hours or 180 days of instruction time each school year. Buckton said districts that fail to meet those requirements could potentially lose their accreditation.

Rolling Green Elementary kindergartner Simon Vaughn listens at his home in Urbandale as his teacher reads a book on Zoom on July 30, 2020. The year-round school was allowed to open online-only, but the state denied a request for that to continue. The district is pushing ahead with online-only instruction until at least Aug. 20.

"There's a rather lengthy process where the district would have to appear before the state Board of Education, and they would have to explain their position and present a workout plan," she said. "And the state Board of Education will either accept that plan or direct them to rethink that, or they might say, 'You're at risk of losing accreditation.' But I have never seen that in the past work faster than a two- or three-year turnaround."

When former Davenport Superintendent Art Tate defied the law to spend more per pupil than the state allowed — a quirk of the law meant the district could spend less per student than other districts — he was reprimanded by the licensure board, but not until about three years after he took action. 

Buckton said some districts might act now and wait to see what, if any, repercussions come their way. 

Joshua Brown, president of the Des Moines Education Association, the teachers union for Des Moines Public Schools, said he expects that eventually the courts will be asked to resolve the issue, though it's unclear what ultimately would trigger a court review. 

A district like Urbandale, which has been denied a waiver by the state, could seek to appeal the issue by challenging it in district court, he said. 

"My guess is that there will be a school district that will join together potentially with others to actually get this in court and have a judge decide ... what's the correct interpretation of this rule," he said.

Brown said the stalemate sometimes feels like a game of "chicken," with each side daring the other to escalate the issue further.

"The sad thing is that we're playing chicken with kids' and staff's lives," he said. "Our school administrators and our school boards are focused on what are the legal implications of doing what they consider to be what's right for our students, our staff and our community, rather than putting their full energy into providing the best quality education possible for our kids in a few weeks."

Des Moines metro schools' return-to-learn plans

Here is where some Des Moines metro school districts stand on their return-to-learn plans as of Aug. 7:

Ankeny: The school board in late July passed a hybrid return-to-learn model to start off the school year. Families have the choice of having children take all classes virtually, or receive instruction partially in person and partially online.

Des Moines: Des Moines Public Schools said in July that it would offer a hybrid model to start the school year, but last week district administrators recommended asking the Iowa Department of Education permission to start the school year 100% online. The district has not yet made that request. Superintendent Tom Ahart said DMPS would make a decision within about a week. If the state were to deny the request, Des Moines could bring K-8 students back under the hybrid model, while high school students would return to in-person classes full-time. The district also could seek a legal solution to provide classes online, Ahart said. The district is exploring delaying the start of the school year until after Labor Day.

Johnston: The school board voted Monday to approve a hybrid learning plan. Families have the choice of having children take all classes virtually, or receive instruction partially in person and partially online. Face covering will be required for students attending in-person classes.

Southeast Polk: The Southeast Polk Community School District decided Thursday to begin the school year Aug. 24 with a combination of in-person and online classes, but it will re-evaluate that plan every two weeks, leaving open the possibility that some students in lower grades could return to in-person classes full time.

Urbandale: The Urbandale school board will decide Monday which learning model it will use when the majority of its schools begin the year on Aug. 25. Urbandale received a state waiver for Rolling Green Elementary School to hold all classes online when the year-round school began holding classes in late July. But the state denied the district's request to extend the waiver and ordered students back to the classroom. On Friday, Urbandale defied that order and continued offering Rolling Green students online classes. Rolling Green will continue holding classes online until Aug. 25. At that time, it will transition into whatever learning model is adopted by the board for the rest of Urbandale’s schools.

Waukee: Waukee families will choose whether their children will attend classes entirely online or entirely in person, with no hybrid option. The district will require face coverings, except for those who may not be able to safely wear them.

West Des Moines: The school board approved a return-to-school model in July, allowing parents to choose between either beginning the school year entirely online or entirely in person for the first semester. A hybrid model will not be used unless COVID-19 conditions change. The district is exploring delaying the start of the school year. 

Brianne Pfannenstiel is the chief politics reporter for the Register. Reach her at bpfann@dmreg.com or 515-284-8244. Follow her on Twitter at @brianneDMR.

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